When I hear professional publicists and public relations specialists giving advice to writers, one theme keeps coming up: start where you are. Use the power of your community and the people you know to build momentum.
This is a strategy that does not receive enough attention from traditionally published and self-published authors in their quest for best-selling books. Traditional writers may become too focused on national media attention or industry critiques; Freelance authors can become obsessed with Amazon rankings and optimization. It’s not that these things don’t have a role to play, but sometimes national attention and good rankings are the result of great marketing and promotion work in a community that knows you. It’s often easier to gain traction this way and encourage word of mouth to spread further as a stepping stone to the toughest PR victories.
For the launch of his book Appalachian OdysseyAbout hiking the Appalachian Trail, author Jeff Ryan visited 34 LL Bean stores, as well as various libraries, over five months and 40,000 miles in his VW Westfalia. Along the way he landed radio interviews and mentions on various travel blogs and websites including USA today. His book is now in its second printing and he has two more books on the way. While this may seem like a “national” approach, she started out very narrowly: targeting clients of LL Bean, the perfect demographic for her book.
For the launch of Every father’s daughter, an anthology of essays, the publisher and contributors (I’m one of them!) collaborated on multiple book launch events held simultaneously across the country. Contributors titled their own literary events in their hometown, then joined a live group session with other contributors, broadcast to all locations via Skype. The events at each location were supported by local media coverage (my event in Charlottesville, Virginia received radio, newspaper and television coverage, in addition to an article in the weekly university information), then by wide national attention later.
Several years ago Andi Cumbo self-published his non-fiction book, Slaves have names, on the history of plantations in Virginia. Because her book has special significance within the state and to living descendants of slaves, her marketing and public relations have focused on Virginia (for example, speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution there ).
But a strong regional footprint often leads to national publicity. When the University of Virginia named one of its buildings in honor of Peyton Skipwith, a slave who helped build the university, Cumbo’s name and book were mentioned on the cover of the Washington post because his book is about the history of the Skipwith family. Cumbo continues to do events and publicity statewide, and due to her consistent profile and activities, she has been referenced in broad contexts and conversations when issues of slavery are discussed, as in the Slate article “Slaving away Where Enslaved person? “
The same strategy applies to fiction. Novelist Ani Tuzman, author of The tremor of love, is hosting a series of nationwide events at synagogues and Jewish cultural centers to draw attention to his book, which is inspired by the life of a historic Jewish mystic. Freelance fantasy author Jay Swanson devotes much of his promotional energy to fan conventions; Freelance sci-fi author John Sundman has focused on the tech community for many years (which once earned him a coveted mention on the tech blog Slashdot).
It may seem boring or like you’re not aiming high enough if you start locally or with the community of people who are likely to be most interested. But why not win over the “easy” people first? They can help you generate word of mouth and create advertising that receives increasingly national attention.
When planning your book marketing and promotion strategies, whether it’s a new book or an old book, consider the following:
● Which group will be easiest to convince to read or buy this book?
● What events, organizations or businesses exist (regionally or nationally) that focus on my target demographic?
● Which local or regional media regularly cover the authors? What does this blanket look like or what is it triggered by?
● What local or regional places (apart from bookstores) regularly present authors or books?
Study authors who you would consider to be similar, but not at the bestseller stage. (Bonus points if these authors live in the same region as you!) What events did they do? What media presented them? Where do their criticisms come from? Use their track record to help chart the course of your awareness plan.
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is the former editor of Collection of the writer.
A version of this article appeared on 09/25/2017 from Editors Weekly under the title: first go narrow, then go wide